James Shields' Numbers Ugly on Surface, but Rays Look Deeper
That changes Thursday.
Unlike Barry Zito, A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez, Rays right-hander James Shields not only made the team's postseason rotation but will get the nod in Game 2.
On the surface, it's a head-scratcher. Shields was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA. In 203 1/3 innings he gave up 246 hits, 34 homers and 117 earned runs. Over his final 11 starts, he was 3-6 with a 6.68 ERA and 12 homers in just 61 innings.
"For those that are really into numbers," manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday in a news conference, "look into more of the deeper numbers regarding his performance this year, and he's actually done a lot of good stuff, too. The innings, hits per innings pitched and the homers really stand out, but beyond that he's done a lot of really good work underneath the surface."
My curiosity piqued, I approached Maddon later to ask what deeper numbers he was talking about.
Maddon said that Andrew Friedman, the Rays VP of baseball operations (essentially the general manager), had made him aware of some advanced -- perhaps not standard, but not unheard-of either -- statistics.
For example, Shields was fourth in the AL in strikeout-walk ratio (3.67), behind Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver and Shaun Marcum. Shields' walk ratio (5.7 percent of batters faced) is essentially unchanged from 2009, and his strikeout rate is up (career-best 8.28 per nine innings).
Then there are the "deeper numbers."
Shields' batting average allowed on balls in play (not counting strikeouts nor homers) was .344, highest in the American League. Some believe a high "BAbip" indicates bad luck, and Maddon told me he believes Shields has been unlucky.
"There was a lot of ups and downs this year," Shields said. "I've dealt with it pretty good.
"It's kind of weird; it's like my last three games, I got crushed by one hit, you know. It could have been a great outing each time."
According to FanGraphs, Shields had a Fielder-Independent Pitching (FIP) figure of 4.24, about the same as the Yankees' Phil Hughes and better than teammate Matt Garza. That number measures performance based solely on walks, strikeouts, home runs and hit batsmen.
Then there's Expected Fielding Independent ERA (xFIP) -- which uses the same components but normalizes a pitchers' home runs allowed based on his fly balls allowed and is supposed to be a good indicator of future performance.
Shields was actually seventh among AL starters in xFIP, between Justin Verlander and Ricky Romero and ahead of CC Sabathia, David Price, Trevor Cahill and C.J. Wilson, whom he opposes on Wednesday.
"When Shieldsy is able to locate well with his fastball," Maddon said, "everything else works off of that and of course you can say that about almost any pitcher. But with him particularly, when he's really dotting down and away both to righties and lefties, fastball, and then he works a very, very good change-up off of it, and I'll say it again, I love his curveball, when he's got all those things going on, he's a pretty good pitcher.
"If James gets off well tomorrow, which I think he will, this guy is capable of pitching a really good ballgame and getting us into the latter part of our bullpen."
Another factor in Shields' favor is playoff experience.
Shields was Tampa Bay's best starter in the 2008 postseason, going 2-2 with a 2.88 ERA in four starts, all at home.
"I think the experience that I had in '08 went pretty well," he said. "You know, I think the experience factor, it's a whole different ballgame when you get out there.
"In 2008, I pitched the first game, and I didn't really realize how big the moment is, how big the stage is. I think this year having the experience of going through that in 2008 is definitely going to help me out and help my confidence out."
Shields faced Texas twice this year, going 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA. But he has struggled against Elvis Andrus (3-for-6, double, triple), Michael Young (two homers in 14 at-bats), Vladimir Guerrero (.394 average with two homers in 33 at-bats) and Julio Borbon (4-for-9).
"The best attribute for a baseball player is amnesia," Shields said. "I feel really good right now. I feel confident in my stuff. I feel confident in what I'm doing out there. My bullpen sessions have been going great. I'm excited to get this thing going and getting the opportunity to pitch."